Doing it for the Little Guys

Small Publishers – What are they and where do they fit in the publishing industry?
by Jenna O’Connell

So, one of the first questions I inevitably get asked after mentioning this internship is something I dread: oh, cool! How small is the publishing house? Because, how do you describe something like that? Do I measure in square feet of office space? In the weight of all the books Odyssey has ever published? The number of people who are employed in the company? All these are different measures of people’s perceptions of small and large, but none of them really sum up the difference between small publishers and large publishers. As I’ve progressed through this internship, I’ve realised that very few people, and almost no one outside the publishing industry, can adequately define what exactly small press is. So, with my limited experience and the searing overconfidence of youth, I’m going to attempt to give it a go.

The Small Press Underground Networking Community (now Small Press Network) examined this problem in a report commissioned back in 2007, designed to figure out exactly what small press is, and why it is important to Australia’s publishing and literary industries. One of the clearest distinctions between the two was that small press are mostly separate from large corporations. Another is in their engagement with alternative modes of bookselling, rather than just a reliance on bookstores. From there, most of the criteria is far less definitive, as the nature of small, growing companies is that they can flow within and over these categories as things change. But the most common factors that appeared were a release of less than 12 books a year, and a print run for each book no larger than 5,000, and usually far less than that, somewhere around 1000-2000 copies. But all these numbers are pretty arbitrary. What I find to be the defining feature of small press is the personalised attention they are able to provide. Michelle, our publisher, is involved in every stage of the process for the books she publishes, from submission, to cover, to promotion. She also interacts personally with all of her authors, something that blew me away when I first started working here. Wait, I get to meet HOW many real life authors? Sometimes, it’s almost too exciting to believe. This kind of interconnectedness is something that would be impossible in a larger operation. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it highlights that both small and large publishers have their place, and provide vastly different services.

Small publishing houses are admirable for their ability to take risks where large publishing houses will not. Indeed, many larger publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning it’s a lot harder for new authors to grab their attention, especially if they’re doing it completely on their own. Usually, an author will get their start with a smaller publisher, and move to a larger one as their fan base and sales grow. I can’t speak for other small presses, obviously, but a lot of our focus here at Odyssey is on trying to find the stories that are clamouring to be told, rather than the ones that fit a generic model that may be guaranteed to sell, but lack that something special. And often those are in mediums that have faded from the public consciousness. Small press publishers overwhelmingly represent short fiction and poetry production. Many of us are a bit blah about these modes of storytelling nowadays. When was the last time any of us read a short story that wasn’t written by someone who has been famous for at least 50 years? I know I’m certainly guilty of it, but I would be devastated if suddenly these ways of writing were phased out. Small publishing houses are the cornerstones of targeting niche and speciality markets that may not attract the attention of larger publishers, but still have their devoted audiences. For example, Odyssey is about to release a book about the journey of whiskey! Talk about a niche market there! How many books really cater to the whiskey lovers out there?

Large publishers like Penguin or Harper Collins are ones that, inevitably, the mind strays to when I mention I’m interning in publishing. They are undoubtedly the biggest kids on the block, and their contributions to the publishing industry have been enormous. But learning how publishing works from a small press perspective has been infinitely more enriching, as I’ve been exposed to so many different facets of the industry, in a way that I could never have done in a larger company. More details of those experiences to come in later posts!

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